In Salvador I manage to master my unconventional way of travel further. In the previous article I mentioned that apart from a short sightseeing tour at night, I only saw the sights of this historic city from the tourist information brochure. These are the places and things of interest that I would not miss if I were with friends or with family, no question. And this time I’ll give you an insight about what’s in my mind while saying goodbye. And not only to Maria, but also to this colourful and vibrant Salvador. In an unconventional way of course.
Now the biggest challenge of the trip is about to begin. I don’t have to worry about visas, border crossings or areas with unstable public security here, but the thousands of kilometres of hitchhiking ahead of me is going to be exciting. I’ve had soul-crushing waits of many hours to one day(!) in countries with vast territories, but in these places the population density was very low, and therefore the road traffic was very light. In Brazilian Cerrado grasslands this should not be a big problem. So let’s get started!
I’m leaving the residential area and heading straight for the busiest and probably the last rest area on the motorway northbound. There I’ll try to find a driver (and a travel buddy at the same time) for the trip to the capital, Brasília, some 1,500 kilometres away.
I walk to the bus stop recommended by the route planner (interestingly I still believe in it). But the bus 1496.8 (or something similar) offered to me is not coming again – or, more likely, that after the bus network had been updated, the Google Maps service did not keep track of the changes. Okay, so I’ll try to be relying on the locals from now on – here they recommend a few services leaving from the other side of the busy downtown freeway. Then with my two bags – and not to say with great pleasure – I climb the flyover and cross over the boulevard.
While walking towards the bus stop, I hear women shouting and look back, but I guess they are not shouting at me. “Asalto, asalto” – they shout again and I begin to understand – in English it means assault, and as I look back again I see that they are definitely yelling at me from a distance to Stop! This must be a robbery… But I don’t notice any particular panic on either of the two buses standing at the bus bay. I stay standing, a bit frightened, until the women get closer to me. They explain that the armed robber has already run away, the area is clear: “it’s safe now”, they say.
I walk with them to the bus stop where one of the buses is still standing without passengers, and then I ask, puzzled, where is the police? “Polícia não”, they repeat, looking at me as if asking something very obvious. So the police here don’t get involved in petty cases like armed robbery in a public place or on a public bus? Probably not, until at least there is blood. To me this is unbelievable.
Tips for a carefree trip
It’s your valuables that bad guys might try to get, the target is not you. So getting physically hurt is pretty unusual, unless things escalate. Here I list a few important tips on how to minimise risk of being mugged or hurt.
- It’s great to travel solo, but this does not mean you are alone. And especially in higher risk areas it is always a good idea to have someone accompanying you, preferably a local. They don’t only know the place inside out having priceless personal stories to tell, but two or more people can deter potential attackers more effectively.
- Visible valuables – As soon as I leave my safe haven – Central and Western Europe mainly – I put my necklace in my wallet and keep it there. I involuntarily look like a tourist, any kind of jewellery only adds to this conspicuousness – and they are also too easy prey.
- Internal pocket – Excellent to hold small items, such as bank and ID cards, backup cash. I’ve got some inside my pants.
- Make baits – Big notes in the secret pocket, while small ones can be held in more exposed places. These can be handed in case of a robbery. I try not to bring wallets, but if I do so, I leave all important documents at home, replaced by an expired credit card and one with nearly no balance. These would make them satisfied on the spot.
- Show confidence – In an unsafe area or situation I always try to behave naturally, even if I have no idea where I am and where I should go.
- In case you are mugged, try to give them what they want. Don’t fight back, they are probably better at this.
- Party safely – When I felt 4 hands screening all my pockets in a packed nightclub, I knew I had no chance. Fortunately I left my phone and cards at home and took only a little cash as well as a piece of paper with some phone numbers. Almost everyone has cellphones today so people can and definitely will help you if needed. (Anyway, as it turned out later, they managed to rob me: my small piece of paper with a few personal phone numbers was gone, but luckily in the morning, using the radio in the marina office, the crew was able to come ashore to “take me home.”)
And don’t forget to keep calm, it’s very unlikely that you get into trouble.
But why do I have to bother with these confusing numbers and apparently dangerous bus stops in a metropolis of 4 million people? I immediately get the answer on the opposite side of the road: a BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit, also known as express bus network is under construction. This is a mode of transportation consisting of designated bus corridors and stops, that is consequently independent of road traffic and therefore it is much less disruptive than traditional bus services sharing the roads with other vehicles. This is a popular alternative to the metro in poorer countries, especially because of its much lower construction and maintenance costs.
But for now, I’ll get to the closest metro station on the surface and then travel all the way to its northern terminus in Pirajá, from where I’ll catch yet another bus to the largest highway rest area in the northernmost section.
life at a Posto
In countries with large territories, complex service hubs (in Brazil: posto) and sometimes even kinds of small towns can grow alongside or at the intersection of major roads: one or more petrol stations, restaurants, small shops and even entire supermarkets, hotels and B&Bs, motels (which here in Latin America offer rooms on an hourly basis for shorter stay and are strictly incognito, i.e. the rooms are accompanied by a drive-thru-like closed garage, often all automated…). But there is also a bar, a truck park, a full car and truck service, sometimes a police station, less frequently a fire and ambulance station too, an amusement park, but also logistics services with transhipment and storage facilities, and at the provincial borders, additional government offices as well. So some of these are gigantic.
Employees at these places have been extremely nice to me while looking for a ride, all over the world. Here they also let me dump my big bag at the counter of the petrol station, while with the little one on my back I’m walking around asking drivers for a ride. I am surprised to see, however, that people travelling longer distances are successively turning down the idea of me being their passenger. Their faces show a deep and impenetrable distrust, but some of them also simply seem intimidated by my questions themselves. And thus I, too, start to become a little worried after several hours, as this really does suggest some kind of poor public safety.
This does not make things easy for me. Neither does the fact that the capital, built about 1,500 kilometres from here in the middle of nowhere, is still inaccessible by motorway, and instead I have to deal with a maze of zigzagging main roads, which can be quite inconvenient if the ride I manage to get is non-direct.
I didn’t plan to spend lunchtime here, but I’m joining the queue for the buffet-style restaurant now. What a relief, especially after these three hours of disappointment.
I turn back only for good reasons, so I quickly dismiss the idea for now: there will be no extra night in Salvador. Luckily, the restaurant’s wifi is faster than my 4G network, so I can scan the local bus and airline sites to see what my options are to get to Brasília or at least to get out of here. But let’s keep on hunting for a ride…!
This is frustrating. I arrived here at my base camp at around 9am, and by 6pm I am mentally and physically exhausted. I head back to the restaurant for wifi and a coffee.
I’m finally giving up on hitchhiking. Since I’ve practically thrown a day in the bin, the only option now is to fly, especially since the private bus companies don’t offer much cheaper tickets for the 26-hour trip.
And what about the train? South America’s rail network was quite well developed in the glorious past, but the lack of maintenance and planning, corruption and road-centric transport policies have virtually wiped out the network and long-distance passenger transport has basically disappeared, with the exception of a few services. There is therefore no railway.
It would be great if I could just buy the plane ticket. But in Brazil, a Tax Identification Number (or CPF, roughly the equivalent of a national ID card) is used for online shopping. Websites require this number. And even though the website of the Chilean-Brazilian airline giant offers the possibility of passport identification, I can’t manage to fiddle with the numbers to get it to accept it as valid. I’ve tried from my phone and laptop, using different browsers… no luck. I asked other people, but they didn’t want to let me use their numbers, so I give up on that too. Moreover, the company does not respond to any enquiries. I am shocked. So I have to buy a ticket in person!?
Before sunset, I say goodbye to the petrol station attendants, thank them for being my luggage lockers for the day, and then I join the few people waiting for the bus on the dusty hard shoulder of the expressway near the rest area. I check the buses in the route planner app even after the annoying failures, but I also do ask two other people if the suggested bus would take me back to the metro terminal. They all nod in agreement, which is a good sign, and my map shows the route: the bus goes out of this service area for a while until it reaches the circular highway, then simply turns back towards the city – a very strange route, but then again, different culture, different route planning…
A surprise ride
The bus 1538.7 arrives. I routinely wave to the driver to open the middle door so I don’t get caught on the turnstile behind the front door (is this really the only way to cut fare-dodging?). I pay the fare, and then, so as not to be disturbed by the rattling of the front engine under the driver, I go to the back.
I must be doing something wrong because as I sit down, the conductor waves me to go back to her. I do so, and then she tells me to sit in the front, behind her seat. I reassure her that I am perfectly fine with the place I chose and say thank you. As I walk back to my seat, some of the few passengers point forward as if to instruct me. Then the conductor climbs out of her ‘iron cage’ and follows me. I’ll never forget the determined way she grabbed my big rucksack from the outside seat and pulled it forward, while ordering me to sit behind her and stay calm. Everything will be alright.
Well, hearing this makes me calm down for sure – what else can come today?
At the motorway junction, the bus does not turn back, but we continue our journey further north, going off the map. Then we turn off towards the residential areas, now about 20 kilometres from the city. It’s a dirty, dusty, rubbishy area, with mostly single-storey houses, among which only bushlands can be seen. Children, young people and adults loitering everywhere. As we are moving deeper and deeper into the suburban jungle, I’m beginning to understand why I’m sitting in the front seat. Then we turn into a social housing area, probably brought to life by an attempt to eradicate inner city favelas.
The setting sun draws colourful formations into the colourlessness, pleasantly breaking the monotony of the barren and completely rundown blocks of houses. Dust and rubbish piles between the rows, and very few cars in the parking lots between the houses. And then, as I look closer, most of them have flat tyres waiting for their windows to be smashed. We head down one of the streets between the houses, and on the side of the road little girls are waving the bus down – they must be carrying some groceries home in their carrier bags.
The smell of burning plastic in the air grows even more intense. I peer through the bars in front of me and see what’s going on: local teenagers are burning rubbish in a rusty oil drum, standing around it. I don’t understand what this is for, as the tropical heat is quite enough, it’s more of a ritual or a way of burning waste – or just simply killing time. The 8-10 teenagers are almost all wearing slippers and a pair of shorts, one of them with jewellery on his brown upper body.
The composition is saddening, but on the other hand, it’s creepy to feel like I am a figurant (minor character) in a cliché Hollywood movie, set in the Bronx in the 90s.
Someone’s getting off, so the almost empty bus stops suddenly, right next to the gang of hooligan-looking folks. I can only hope that the crowd, which includes some very ugly faces, doesn’t want to get on. They can be very brave in a group and with a gun and I, as a conspicuously European rich man, would be a prime target. But no, these kids won’t budge from the garbage, in fact there’s no reason for them to leave their parallel reality. Then again, maybe for the third time, I ask the conductor of the adrenaline cruiser, “Are you sure this bus goes to the subway station?”
After almost an hour and a half of wandering around the suburbs, I arrive back at the Piranjá terminal. This is the same place from where I started my journey 10 hours ago, full of hope. Since I couldn’t find a way to buy a ticket online, I’m heading straight to the airport.
This officially ends my great Salvadoran car-catching challenge.
At the air hub I buy my ticket at the local LATAM office, then stretch out on the sofa of one of the cosy cafés. My stuff is all around me, but I don’t have to worry about it – it is safe here.
Brazil, preliminary conclusions
It’s only day 4, only one city, but I’ve already gained some deep impressions. Many that uplifted and delighted me, but this last day also had some that overshadowed the previous positive ones.
The most striking observation from a European perspective is the visible and dramatic segregation of social groups. Both spatially and in terms of their income. I have mentioned the basic causes of these segregations, but I have not planned to write about attempts to overcome them. However, having had some insight into the way of life of social classes separated by distance and even by walls, I am very sceptical about the near future success of any assimilation initiatives. And also about the success of attempts to dismantle informal housing estates in general – this is not a physical-architectural issue, so simply moving the marginalised populations into favela-substitute settlements in the outskirts of the city will not solve the problem.
Let’s be clear!
Salvador, and at this point I can only assume that the whole of Brazil is stunning! The people were all helpful and made me feel very welcome, except of course for the great distrust shown by complete strangers, which unfortunately fills the general atmosphere too. But I know this is not my fault, it is the rampant delinquency to blame.
But if you forget these negative impressions, the monument-rich picturesque colonial city centre, the preserved African culture and the endless palm-fringed coast with vibrant beach life all year round will definitely captivate you.
/Cover photo: landing in Brasília at night. Photo: terrainfinita.hu/